In my last newsletter I talked about the idea in contemporary theology that creation itself has a kind of freedom, that even quarks have free will.
What’s interesting, too, is that this is also a Medieval idea. We can find it Dante’s Divine Comedy, the great poem of the Middle Ages.
Early on in their journey through the afterlife Virgil, Dante’s guide, explains the role of “Dame Fortune” in the heavenly scheme and her great wheel—the wheel of fortune. She spins it, and wherever it happens to stop, that person is rich. She spins it again, and wherever it stops, that person is poor. It’s entirely random, and that’s the point:
All earth’s gear
she changes from nation to nation, from house to house,
in changeless change through every turning year. (Inferno VII.79-81)
Dame Fortune is “the Lady of Permutations,” of “changeless change.” “She passes and things pass,” Dante says, and it has nothing to do with us. The rich don’t earn their riches and the poor don’t deserve their poverty and so we need to be humble. We need to be compassionate.
What’s so surprising is that Dame Fortune, according to Virgil and according to the whole Middle Ages, has a privileged place among the heavenly spheres. She is one of the angelic presences.
Paradise in Dante is a series of ever larger, nesting spheres—the spheres of the Moon, of Mercury, of Venus, of the Sun, of Jupiter, and of Saturn, and then of the realm of the Fixed Stars and finally the Empyrean, the mystical realm of God, and all these wheels are turning and all of them are related and the whole system, the whole ecology, is filled with beauty and purpose and love. Space is not a void. It’s not a blackness. It’s a place of joy and music and light, divinely and intricately ordered, and somehow Dame Fortune has a special place inside this structure. Somehow her wheels spins within an order and goodness we can’t see or understand. Randomness is contained in and made sense of, ultimately, in the highest heavenly spheres.
That king whose perfect wisdom transcends all
made the heavens and posted angels on them
to guide the eternal light that it might fall
from every sphere to every sphere the same.
He made earth’s splendors by a like decree
and posted as their minister this high Dame . . . .
the Lady of Permutations. (Inferno VII.74-79)
Dante explains this as best he can, and many other things, too, again and again, then repeatedly falls back on the cliché that this is all a mystery. This is all beyond words. But in Dante this isn’t just a cliché. In Dante this is always dramatized, with vividness and sharpness—and with joy, with love, with delight. The mystery doesn’t depress him and it shouldn’t depress us. It should inspire us.
At one point, Dante has climbed nearly to the top of the spheres, and he looks down from this great height, as if he is looking down from a great, impossibly tall building, and he sees the earth far below, in the center—all the other planets revolve around it—but not in the sense that the earth is more important or somehow greater. It’s at the bottom of the great system, and it’s small, it’s tiny, not unlike the tiny blue dot of the earth as seen by the Voyager when it left the solar system and turned around one last time to see where it had come from. The earth is “the threshing floor”—this is another very common image in the Middle Ages—and from his new perspective Dante now sees how petty our struggles are in the great scheme things. How small we all are.
My eyes went back through the seven spheres below
and I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space,
I had to smile at such a sorry show. (Paradiso XXII.133-135)
Maybe my favorite cantos in the whole Comedy are earlier, when Dante reaches the Sphere of the Sun and encounters St. Thomas Aquinas, the philosopher on whose great Summa the whole structure of the Comedy depends, and St. Thomas isn’t discoursing. He’s not chopping things up into little logical pieces. He’s dancing, in a circle of light, he’s dancing with all the other doctors of the church, round and round the heavens in all pleasure and joy, and though in his courtesy he stops and goes to talk with Dante, it’s clearly a courtesy. He clearly wants to get back to the dance as soon as he can.
When, so singing, those Sun-surpassing souls
had three times turned their blazing circuit round us
like stars that circle close to the fixed poles,
they stood like dancers still caught in the pleasure
of the last round, who pause in place and listen
till they have caught the beat of the new measure. (Paradiso X.76-81)
It’s such a lovely image. You can almost see their flushed and joyous faces.
And the point of all this? The message Thomas gives him, the great champion of reason: not to put too much faith in our reason!
O senseless strivings of the mortal round!
how worthless is that exercise of reason
that makes you beat your wings into the ground! (Paradiso XI.1-3)
Reason is a wonderful thing. We need it. It can take us very far, right to the very edge of things, but ultimately God is much greater, love is much greater, joy is much greater. “I have seen things,” Thomas is reported to have said on his deathbed, “that make all my ideas seem like straw.”
We don’t understand, we can’t understand, and that’s even a pleasure in itself, Dante suggests. The souls in heaven take pleasure in not knowing all the mystery because it gives them the chance to obey the Lord and to trust in the Lord with greater love and devotion. “Sweet it is”, the Eagle says, in the Sphere of Jupiter, “to lack this knowledge still / for in this good is our own good refined, / willing whatever God himself may will” (Paradiso XX.136-138) All we need to know is that the whole universe is charged with beauty and with grandeur. All we need to know is that God in his great mercy and creativity and love fills us each to our capacity and that in each of our places all is given, all is overflowing, all is beauty—”every nature moves across the tide / of the great sea of being” (Paradiso I.112-133)—and even with our knowledge of what the galaxies really look like, of the vast distances in space, of what seems like a void, we can take solace in this. We can believe this. Not all matter is dark, and even dark matter has substance and texture. It’s a net. A web. Be not afraid. There is life and meaning and purpose awaiting us beyond what only seems random to us now, what only seems pointless to us now, what only seems harsh and arbitrary and cruel. There is music and dancing. There is unimaginable light.